Gina Storm-Jensen & Donald Thom
Artist & First Artist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 13 August 2015.
DAVID BAIN INTRODUCED THE TWO GUESTS Gina Storm-Jensen and Donald Thom both of the Royal Ballet corps de ballet. Gina started dancing at the age of four in a little school in Oslo and got accepted into the Norwegian National Ballet School when she turned eight. She was a part of the big move into the new Opera House in Oslo, which now is one of the most iconic landmarks in Norway. In 2009 she won the Gold medal in the International Grasse Competition, which gave Gina exposure and confidence.
Donald trained locally in Canada, before joining the Royal Ballet School. His father is a pianist, and he thinks that's where he might get his musicality from. He grew up dancing all styles like jazz and tap, alongside ballet and it wasn't till he competed at YAGP that he decided ballet was what he wanted to pursue. He competed the same year as Benjamin Ella and Vadim Muntagirov, coming from the RBS, and they are why he decided he wanted to train there.
In 2011 Gina entered the Prix de Lausanne where she was the youngest finalist, receiving a three year scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. The Royal Ballet School was her first choice, because she loved the Royal Ballet, and had with pleasure attended many summer schools at White Lodge. She met Gailene Stock in Lausanne, as she was the main judge that year. Donald explained that YAGP and Prix de Lausanne are similar, but YAGP is more about getting scholarships to vocational schools, rather than competing. The first time he entered the competition he performed the Giselle Act ll solo and the second time one from Esmeralda.
Gina said that the Upper School was an amazing experience. She found being surrounded by so many talented people and experienced staff hugely rewarding and inspiring. Since Gina was born in London, she felt like she was going back to her roots, adding she was one of the longest babies born in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
School was ballet focused and that was new for Donald. He was so used to doing all sort of styles, that honing in on one was a new experience for him. lt was amazing being so connected to the Opera House, and found it so inspiring to walk by the studios everyday and seeing some of the best dancers in the world work.
During Gina’s time at Upper School she was taught by Ms Zvelibelova, Ms Stock, Ms Young and Ms Whitten and very briefly by Ms Tranah, as she was already offered a contract with the Royal Ballet having just started her third year in October. Donald studied under Mr Pakri in his first year, who made such a difference to his dancing and then Mr Peden, and in the third year under Gary Norman and Miss Tranah.
Donald explained that the teachers were all totally different. It was a difficult time under Mr Pakri but he learnt a lot from him. Gina agreed. She had him for pas de deux classes, and he was very inspirational, but also intimidating. Looking back however, she realised how much he cared for his students and his passion for teaching. She thoroughly enjoyed all of her teachers, each and every one of them forming her into becoming a better dancer. Donald, said that a lot of people in his year were scared of Mr Pakri, but after time you realise what he did for you and once you got on his page, he helped you the most. A lot of people have said this.
ln Donald’s first school performance he danced in Raymonda, the whole of the grand pas for four boys. In his second year he was sick and in the third year he did a lot throughout the performance, including Spring and Fall by John Neumeier at Prix de Lausanne, and Fractals on tour, which really suited him. At the year end performances he danced in Jiri Kylian’s Un Ballo, and Paul Boyd’s Uneven Ground. He got offered his contract with the company the last week of his graduating year after performing Fractals at White Lodge, where Kevin O’Hare was watching.
ln Gina's first year school performance, she performed in Yondering choreographed and rehearsed by John Neumeier and the Grand Defilé which she said was a very special experience. In her second year she danced Valentino Zuchetti’s Sonata for Six, partnered by Reece Clarke and in third year she was already a member of the company.
Gina still remembers the day she was offered a contract as if it was yesterday. “Reece and l were asked to go to Mr Jolley’s office for a meeting. After talking about the pas de deux we were going to perform, he casually mentioned Kevin O'Hare offering us an immediate contract starting Monday – and this was Friday! Reece was speechless and I cried.” Gina mentioned joining with Reece was a relief, not only because he was her pas de deux partner, but also because they had each others support. ln addition she was able to stay with her family who all live in London.
Donald had to wait right until the end of the year. But he was Kevin’s first contract. He had auditioned everywhere but there was nothing. At twelve companies it was “If the first choice doesn’t accept you’ll get it”. Then he got something in Portugal, he arranged a flat and everything. Kevin asked him to do class with the Company after a performance at White Lodge. He had done two classes a week with the company at the end of his third year so was used to the experience.
Gina already had some experience from dancing with the company as a second year student, when she was picked out to be in Symphony in C, Bayadère and Alice in Wonderland. She adds dancing Symphony in C was at the time the biggest moment she had on the Royal Opera House stage. Donald’s first rehearsal was in Viscera as one of the covers. Ludovic Ondiviela was not there so he had to dance and partnered well. Then he was in Swan Lake.
Gina went straight into Rite of Spring as a Company member, not exactly the easiest piece. She explains to us the importance of the counts in the piece and the adrenaline this creates, knowing if one loses count, one stands out.
Donald’s big role was the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. He told Kevin, “l can tap!” in his very first meeting with him after joining. He did this in Japan on tour in his first season. He says it’s such a fun character to dance, because you can really make it your own and have fun with it. In the studio it feels silly, but once you are in makeup and have the pink wig on, and the stripy trousers, you can really get crazy with it.
Gina got her contract two days after her 18th birthday, saying she couldn't have wished for a better birthday present. Time flew at the Company, fully booked with rehearsals and performances. In March Gina injured her knee, which was followed by a six-month rehab. The summer was tough. Every day she was in the gym. Finally the long anticipated return of company class arrived but as luck will have it she broke her toe. She was back again after a couple of weeks.
Donald found out that he was dancing Lensky after the tour to Moscow, Taipei and Shanghai. First he got an email asking when he would like his debut tickets, so he checked on line to find out what his debut tickets were even for! He was due to dance with Yuhui Choe, a First Soloist and he was only an Artist, which was a big deal to him, as they are good friends, and she is amazing. Two weeks before his debut, he was standing watching the general rehearsal back stage, he was one of the eight boys in Act l. He fell and his knee just went, he couldn’t stand up. He couldn’t bend it. He was off for a week, and came back five days before his debut show. Unfortunately, the day before his debut, Yuhui had gone over her ankle so he danced it with Yasmine Naghdi, who graciously stepped in for two shows very last minute, with only 20 minutes rehearsal together. It was the first time they had ever partnered, but all went incredibly smoothly. For his last show, Yuhui was back, and they ended up getting to at least dance one show together! Donald says he is very similar to Lensky’s character. He is quite shy, but a romantic, and very loyal. These are all things that Donald believes come together in the very moving solo Lensky performs in Act ll before being killed. The only thing he says might not be similar is that he most likely wouldn’t enter a duel.
In the summer Donald danced in a project with Natalia Osipova, Edward Watson, Tomas Mock and Marcelino Sambé. Alastair Marriot created the piece Zeitgeist, set to Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto for the 25th Anniversary Ardani Gala at the Coliseum (London), which was then performed in St Petersburg, Moscow and New York. It was a lot of travelling, but it was great. It was a small cast, there were also the Kings of the Dance performing, and another piece, Facada. It was great to be around all this talent, and Donald felt incredibly inspired. Alastair Marriott is really nice to work with. He knows what he wants, then he likes how you interpret it how your body can do it. He takes a lot of suggestions and uses your strengths.
Donald said that Wayne McGregor’s process is totally different. There are lots of workshops. He gives you all these different tasks that eventually turn into a movement or phrase you find yourself. Then he’ll give you options, do 1, 2 and 3, put that with 7, 8 and 9, then go back to 1, 2, 3. Then do it in reverse. It creates an effect and becomes choreographic.
Gina said that it’s nice working with Wayne. “He lets you be a part of his creation”, she adds, “which is great for dancers”. She is currently working on Raven Girl, but has already worked with Wayne in Woolf Works. “Not only are his rehearsals physically challenging, but also mentallyl”
Donald was second cast in Woolf Works and worked with Wayne's dancers from Random Dance. Donald was interested to learn how they did it. Gina said that she learnt Woolf Works from someone else, but she learnt quickly. When you create the work it is easier, your body is used to it. It is really hard to learn from a video, better to be in the studio. Gina adds that she loved working with him, as he brings so much energy.
Gina was very excited to be on her first tour, which took the company to Washington, Chicago and New York. This was Donald’s third. On past tours he was so busy, that he didn’t have as much time to enjoy the cities. This tour was easier, as he was not doing anything too strenuous and it was nice to be relaxed. The only place he hadn't been to was Washington DC. Performing for US audiences is different. There is cheering and screaming whereas here it is more subdued. It gives you a really great energy, and the crowd is great to perform for.
Donald and Gina went on a bike ride with a couple of colleagues on their first day off in Washington, which was great fun even though they almost ended up on the highway. The company performed at The Kennedy Centre, which had great facilities, friendly hosts and Carlos Acosta managed to charm everyone with his Basilio.
Donald explained that the actors were different from Covent Garden. In Taipei the Taiwanese actors couldn't understand us, but they were having so much fun. That is one thing great about working in different countries, is that we hire outside actors from that country. So, it’s always interesting to interact with people who don’t necessarily speak your language. People always think he’s Russian, and in DC one of the actors, who was Russian came up to him and spoke in Russian, he had no idea what she was saying. Chicago was a huge theatre, it was beautiful, and the city was such a contrast to Washington. Washington is more residential, whereas New York and Chicago are bigger metropolitan cities.
In Chicago Gina and some colleagues went to see a baseball match, which was a great contrast to the ballet life they were living. While they were there, the ice hockey finals were happening in the city, which was exciting for Donald. There was a big parade in town on the last day, with people blowing horns, and filling the streets. lt was a great energy to be around. They stayed in the oldest hotel in town adorned with photos of Ella Fitzgerald, and other famous jazz singers who had sung in the hotel ballroom decades before.
Last stop was New York. Gina said New York was her favourite city on the tour. “So much life and buzz.” She particularly enjoyed her visit to the MoMa and meeting colleagues from the American Ballet Theatre. Donald said it was four or five blocks from Times Square, and two blocks from Central Park. “Donald showed us round, he knows it well.” They both went on a boat trip to the Statue of Liberty that had amazing views over Brooklyn and Manhattan. They also visited the 9/11 memorial, Wall Street and Times Square.
Donald covered Song of Earth and Rustics in The Dream. The other programme was Infra, Diverts and Age of Anxiety at the Lincoln Centre. They had a few parties and ABT did Swan Lake there where they met them back stage after the show. He also saw Leanne Cope on Broadway, “She was amazing”. The last night the company had a great gala with a wonderful buffet and dancing with live music, which was great fun.
Gina’s holiday was spent on sailing around the Greek Islands and keeping fit, with a visit to Norway and Germany.
Donald only had an hour’s flight back to Ottawa, then came back to work a week or two later, to tour with Ardani. He is rehearsing Raven Girl and Viscera at the moment, with his first show is on the 18th of September. He has nothing else lined up and no idea what he will dance this season.
Donald would really like to dance Month in the Country, Sleeping Beauty, Chroma and Symphonic Variations. Gina wants to dance Juliet, Odette/Odile, Mayerling, Manon, Queen of Hearts, Concerto pas de deux, and anything Balanchine. She adds she would love to work more with Liam Scarlett, Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon.
Donald noted that the new Hofesh Schechter piece was totally different, but an amazing experience to find your body in his movement, which is so unique, and so different to how we train as ballet dancers. Totally different going from Swan Lake mazurka to wearing socks! Donald added that Hofesh Schechter was so casual, and had a totally different approach to choreography. You were pushing yourself, but in a different way. This was very different from working with choreographers like David Dawson or McGregor, who work very intensely, and you’re pushing your body to the maximum. Schechter did workshops for a lot of us in it to see how we interpreted his style. His dancers would do it differently, but the piece really worked for us, and we all had so much fun doing it and working in such a different style. Donald says that working with Chris Wheeldon is great. He always comes into the studio with so much energy, even if not in his best mood, there’s always a buzz. He gets what he wants out of you, and his work is always a challenge, but so fun to dance. Gina added that his assistant, Jackie Barrett is very good too.
ln conclusion, David thanked our guests and said that members will follow their careers with interest.
Report written by Chris Scott, corrected by Gina Storm-Jensen, Donald Thom and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015.